Five Women Architects Revitalize a Giant Public-Housing Project in Rome
Corviale is one of Italy’s biggest postwar public-housing projects and, arguably, one of the most controversial. Both revered and abhorred, the complex remains a pilgrimage site for architectural schools from around the world. Il Serpentone (The Big Snake), as it is affectionately called, stretches nearly a kilometer in a straight line, a monolithic, brutalist building that hovers over the countryside on the outskirts of Rome. But there is nothing sinuous about a construction made up of 750,000 square meters of reinforced concrete condensed into 60 hectares. This hulking horizontal skyscraper is formed by twin structures, each 30 meters high, connected through labyrinths of elongated hallways, external corridors, and inner courtyards. Divided into five housing units, each with its own entrance and staircase, it contains 1,200 apartments and houses up to 6,000 people.
The project was commissioned in 1972, with public funding from the Istituto Autonomo Case Popolari (IACP; Autonomous Social Housing Institute), and was entrusted to a team of architects led by Mario Fiorentino, who was influenced at the time, like many of his contemporaries, by Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. Emboldened by these modernist dreams of utopian architecture, Fiorentino conceived the project as a city within a building, where collective interests could prevail over individual ones. That same year, however, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis was razed—a warning, signaling the end of huge, high-density social housing schemes, and one that remained unheeded by Fiorentino and his team.
Instead, Corviale was designed as an autonomous structure in which the fourth floor—the piano libero (free floor)—would act as a communal high street, offering services and commercial facilities for the entire collective. Construction began in 1975, but the first apartments were not occupied until 1982, by which time the company managing the site had gone bankrupt. Work, particularly on the fourth floor, was never completed, and so residents moved into a building deprived of basic services, communal spaces, and adequate public transport. With the beginnings of neoliberalism in the 1980s and a different sociopolitical climate, Corviale was abandoned by the public authorities, its residents left to fend for themselves. Fiorentino died in 1982. Legend has it that he committed suicide, believing that he had created a monster. In fact, he died of a heart attack.
Over time the infrastructure decayed, the designated piano libero was squatted by numerous families, and the building became an emblem of social unrest and economic decline in the Roman suburbs. Despite endless proposals for renovating Corviale, and some for demolishing it, it was community action that helped to improve the building. A resilient community restored some dignity and agency to the neighborhood by setting up residents’ associations to convince public entities to fund services, amenities, and cultural and sports activities. The architectural collective Stalker also brought new life to the building in 2004 with Immaginare Corviale (Imagining Corviale), a yearlong program of creative interventions and resident workshops.
In 2009, the owner of the building, ATER, backed with funding from the regional government, finally launched a competition to renovate Corviale’s illegally occupied fourth floor. Guendalina Salimei, director of the Roman practice T-Studio, won it with her project Chilometro Verde (Green Kilometer). It is hard to imagine Salimei’s forceful presence passing unobserved, and yet she served as the inspiration for a popular 2014 Italian film, Scusate se esisto! (Do You See Me?). Recounting the challenges of working as a woman architect in Italy, the film drew much attention to Salimei’s scheme for Corviale. Still, the plan was delayed by a myriad of political and financial hiccups, and construction did not begin until 2019. Fortunately, the tenacious Salimei never gave up. And despite Covid restrictions, a modest 10.5 million euro budget, and multiple stakeholders, Chilometro Verde could not be more timely in its attention both to green and shared spaces.
Notwithstanding decades of hardships, a real community has formed on the fourth floor, and more than 100 families live there. Some spent considerable sums to construct new lodgings, while others live in more precarious conditions, but together they have created and self-managed shared spaces that have generated a feeling of belonging that Salimei’s design seeks to preserve and amplify. The architect was not a newcomer to the building and had already met a number of residents when she worked on renovating the school opposite Corviale in 2009. Her Green Kilometer scheme envisages demolishing 130 illegal homes to construct 103 new sustainable structures of differing sizes that will alternate at regular intervals with the communal spaces. Fiorentino’s original shared-use zones have been included to help redevelop a sense of place.
Fiorentino designed the fourth floor to break the façade, dividing the flats with external walkways from those without them. Salimei has reinterpreted the original idea by devising what she calls “a sort of abstract hanging garden,” a reference to the configuration of the Roman aqueducts in the landscape that apparently inspired Fiorentino. Different shades of green paint are being applied to the protruding ceilings and the facade of the fourth floor, while a green frieze, composed of organically shaped, perforated metal panels, will run across the horizontal line, replacing the original, somewhat ungainly metal grids that residents had altered themselves over the years. The frieze will serve not only as a decorative device and support for an indoor garden, but also as protection from the sun during the torrid Roman summers, and a filter from the wind in the winter.
Moving is usually a painful experience, regardless of circumstance. Corviale’s fourth-floor residents will have to contend with living on a building site, as new flats are constructed while old ones are destroyed. Not only will they relinquish the homes they have built and inhabited, but they will also witness their demolition by the same authorities that they have long distrusted. Although no one will be made homeless, more than half of the inhabitants will be relocated to property owned by ATER in other neighborhoods. The rest, those who successfully answered the public call, will move into Salimei’s newly designed flats. It is a potentially explosive scenario, and one that is being defused by the Laboratorio Città Corviale (Laboratory Città Corviale). Set up by the architecture faculty at Roma Tre University in 2018, it is coordinated by Giovanni Caudo and Francesco Carieri (co-founder of Stalker), and funded by the Regione Lazio and the university.
From their headquarters on the ground floor of the building, architects Sara Braschi and Sofia Sebastianelli head the Laboratory’s program of Accompagnamento Sociale (Social Accompaniment), meeting with residents almost daily to establish trust. Having compiled a database of each family, their objective is to help fourth-floor occupants navigate the process of moving. With painstaking thoroughness, Braschi and Sebastianelli explain the process to residents, analyze the plans of their new flats with them, hear their concerns and objections and convey them to the authorities, locate neighbors, and coordinate the logistics of each move, all while they mediate with ATER, government authorities, and the architects. They have been so successful that they are now being asked for advice by residents throughout the building.
Demolishing a home obliterates both individual and collective memories. For many, a process of mourning follows. To this end, the Laboratory has also set up the Progetto della Memoria (Memory Project) in collaboration with Careri’s course on architecture and urban design. Architect Maria Rocco, together with residents, is photographing and drawing up plans of every home to be demolished, as well as recording oral histories, so that memories can be preserved and passed on to future generations. All of it is a testament to the ingenious ways that residents have designed their way around the building to go about daily life.
Hopefully, the Green Kilometre will be just the start. In 2015, ATER, financed by the Regione Lazio, launched Regenerare Corviale (Regenerating Corviale), a competition to restructure the ground floor, won by another woman architect, Laura Peretti. That scheme focuses on renovating public spaces, increasing the number of entrances, and reconnecting the building to the surrounding neighborhood. Peretti’s project has not yet begun, but work on the Green Kilometer is ongoing, despite stringent lockdown measures. Currently, 21 families have moved into new flats.
The debate on demolishing vs. restoring postwar public-housing projects has raged for years. It’s a debate that is likely to heat up in our post-pandemic, carbon-footprint–anxious age. Now that Lacaton & Vassal are Pritzker Prize winners, perhaps their operating dictum will carry increasing weight: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, only add, transform, and reuse.” Certainly, the Laboratorio Città Corviale indicates a new path forward, encouraging universities to take an active role—together with citizens— in urban regeneration by setting up shop in town. The stakes are high at Corviale, but for now, the Green Kilometer, illuminated at night, signals some hope for the future.
Featured image: Corviale. All photos are courtesy of Laboratorio di Città Corviale, unless otherwise noted.